The Reluctant Husband

August 1, 1998

July 1, 1998

August 1, 1998

July 1, 1998

Preview

She was still his wife!

Frankie thought she’d seen the last of her husband, Santino Vitale – until he breezed back on the scene with some earth-shattering news. Their marriage wasn’t annulled, and now he intended to claim the wedding night they’d never had! He had it all worked out. Within three weeks Frankie would have paid her dues and be free to leave Sardinia, file for divorce, and forget him forever. But Santino hadn’t reckoned on falling for Frankie all over again – or that now she could be expecting his baby….

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Excerpt

MATT FINLAY scanned Frankie’s shocked face and gave her a bracing smile. ‘I happen to think that Sardinia could be a very therapeutic trip for you. You could confront your memories of the love of your life and get it all out of your system—’

‘Santino was hardly the love of my life!’ Frankie countered between gritted teeth, her whole body tense as a drawn bow.

Matt frowned with pretended concentration. ‘I seem to recall that every time you saw the bloke you went weak at the knees and your little teenybopper heart turned cartwheels!’

The evils of alcohol on a loose tongue at the office party, Frankie reflected painfully. One of those times when she had tried a little too hard to be accepted as one of the boys. She should have known Matt would throw that confession back in her face one day when it suited him. ‘I spent five of the worst years of my life in Sardinia. You can’t blame me for not wanting to go back.’

‘You could be off the island again within forty-eight hours and go on to Italy. It wouldn’t need to interfere with your holiday plans. Who else is there? Dan’s still in France and Marty’s wife is due to give birth any day now…’

Frankie wanted to appeal to him again but her sense of fairness would not allow it. Their travel agency, of which she herself owned a sizeable share, specialised in self-catering accommodation abroad, and business had not been that good in recent months. They had lost more than the usual’ number of properties to competitors. Times were tough in the holiday market.

She squared her shoulders, a tall young woman with the sleek, graceful lines of a thoroughbred, dressed in a sharply tailored black trouser suit, quite deliberately chosen to play down her femininity. She had a fine bone structure, with clear green eyes fringed by ebony lashes and set below equally dark brows. Her burnished hair, a fiery combination of red, copper and gold, was worn in a French plait, embellished by a velvet bow clip. That clip was her one concession to being female.

‘And you’re a native,’ Matt mused with satisfaction. ‘That has to be to our advantage.’

‘I’m British,’ Frankie reminded him flatly.

‘Six villas on the Costa Smeralda. You check them out, sign up the owner, go on to Italy and we’re in business. And who knows…? By the time you come home from your holiday, you might even be in the mood to celebrate with me over a romantic dinner for two,’ Matt suggested with a slow, suggestive smile.

Discomfited by that look, Frankie tensed and coloured. They were friends, but Matt had recently strained their friendship by trying to persuade her into a more intimate relationship. She had already told him as tactfully as she could that she wasn’t interested and his persistence was making her increasingly uncomfortable. After all, not only did they work together, they also had to live under the same roof.

‘No chance,’ she told him with a rather forced grin as she walked to the door.

‘Sometimes I hate your brother,’ Frankie informed the smiling blonde manning the counter outside.

Leigh just laughed. ‘Sardinia?’

‘You knew?’ Frankie felt betrayed and knew she was being oversensitive. Neither of her friends could be expected to understand how threatened she felt by the thought of setting foot on the island again. After all, she hadn’t told either of them the full truth of what had happened to her there. ‘Why didn’t you warn me?’

‘Matt thought you’d take it better coming from him, and you’ll only arrive for your holiday in Italy sooner,’ Leigh pointed out cheerfully as she turned away to answer the phone.

Frankie’s long legs made short work of the stairs up to the spacious two-bedroom apartment which she had shared alone with Matt since Leigh had got married. She had moved in with the Finlay siblings three years earlier. Using the proceeds of an insurance policy which had matured when she was eighteen, she had bought into the business. The agency was on the ground floor of the same building. Since Frankie now spent most of her time travelling, spot-checking the standards of current properties and negotiating for new ones, she found the location very convenient.

Or at least she had until Matt had begun acting up, she conceded ruefully. His recent innuendos and familiarities hadn’t gone unnoticed by their employees either. The office tongues were already wagging and gossip upset Frankie. A long time ago she had learnt to her cost that careless talk could wreck lives. It had, after all, very nearly destroyed hers once. She shook off that memory with an inner shudder. Did Matt see her as some sort of a challenge? She wasn’t even his type. Why were men so infuriatingly contrary? The sooner Matt went back to chasing his trademark tiny blondes, the happier she would be.

She rang her mother’s home. The maid answered and put her through.

‘Mum? I’m going away earlier than expected,’ she said apologetically.

‘Frankie…don’t you think you’re getting rather too long in the tooth to be calling me Mum?’ Della snapped in petulant reproof. ‘It makes me feel as if I should be collecting my pension!’

‘Sorry.’ Frankie bit her lip uneasily, a shard of pain that was all too familiar piercing her as Della brushed off the news of her coming absence without comment or indeed any perceptible interest. ‘I have to go to—’

‘I have an appointment with my manicurist in an hour,’ Della interrupted impatiently. ‘I’ll call you some time next month.’

Frankie replaced the receiver, her hand not quite steady. No matter how many times it happened, it still hurt. All the old excuses came flooding back.

Her mother had a very busy social life. She was not a demonstrative person. Those years of separation when Frankie had been in Sardinia had damaged their relationship. But at the back of her mind always lurked the insecure fear that her mother would really not have noticed if her daughter had never come home again. And then she felt deeply ashamed of herself for even thinking such a thing.

Frankie’s eyes flashed with growing exasperation. It was early evening and she was thoroughly fed up. Today she had expected to be on a ferry to Genoa, in Italy, and what was she doing instead? She was cooped up in a hideously noisy little Fiat, travelling along narrow, steep Sardinian roads that forced her to drive at a snail’s pace. Why? Signor Megras, the owner of the villas, had not condescended to meet her at his properties.

She had been given the grand tour by an employee and now she had to travel deep into the mountainous interior of the island to negotiate with the owner at his hotel. The drive had already taken far longer than she had anticipated. Of course, she could have taken advantage of the lift she had been offered by the employee, Pietro—he of the sexually voracious dark eyes and the overly eager-to-touch hands. In remembrance, Frankie grimaced. Welcome back to Sardinia, Frankie, home of the macho male and the child-bride…

As swiftly as that designation slunk into her thoughts, she suppressed it again. She knew what was wrong with her. It was these mountains, the same mountains that had imprisoned her for five unforgettable years. Her flesh chilled at the memories, so why should she let them out? That was the past and it was behind her. She was twenty-one now, and fully in control of her own life again.

But still the memories persisted. The culture shock of being eleven years old, one moment living a civilised life in London and the next being suddenly thrust unprepared into the midst of an almost illiterate peasant family, who didn’t even want her. The horror of being told that she would never see London or her mother again. The desertion of her father within days. The loneliness, the fear, the terrifying isolation. All those feelings were still trapped inside Frankie and she knew she would never be free of them.

Her mother had been an eighteen-year-old model when she became pregnant by a handsome Sard photographer called Marco Caparelli. The resulting marriage had been stormy. Her parents had finally separated when Frankie was eight. Her father had stayed in touch but on a very irregular basis, generally showing up when he was least expected and rarely appearing when he was. Once or twice he had even contrived to talk his way back beneath the marital roof again. Frankie’s desperate hope that her parents would reconcile had seemed like a real possibility to her on those occasions.

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